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Why Technology Matters For Sustainable Development

In his book Zero to One, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel addresses the distinction between globalization and technology. Globalization constitutes “horizontal progress”, he writes, or “taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere”; and China is the “paradigmatic example” of growth through globalization.

Technology, on the other hand, enables “vertical progress”, which Thiel argues is harder to imagine because it means “doing something nobody has ever done”. Moreover, while technology has for many come to mean information technology, there’s no reason to restrict its definition in this way, since “any new and better way of doing things” can be called technology.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, there has been an explosion of entrepreneurship around the world. Asian countries, particularly India and China, have demonstrated their ability to create high-growth start-ups. Around the world, there are 70 or so private enterprises valued at above $1 billion, and Asia is home to 15 of them.

But most of these ventures are products of horizontal progress (going “from one to n”, to use Thiel’s expression) and not vertical progress (“from zero to one”). Strictly speaking, even internet giants such as China’s Alibaba Group and India’s Flipkart are not technology pioneers: their well-earned success has been in deploying and scaling a proven business model in their home market.

So far, China, India and other emerging markets have grown by adopting and adapting technologies and business models from advanced economies. But can economic growth be sustained and delivered through the globalization model alone? Large populations in Asia and Africa aspire to join the ranks of the middle class; bringing sustainability to so many people will take innovation across a wide range of industries, which have so far remained relatively untouched by the rapid pace of change affecting information and communications technologies.

There is an enormous amount of latent consumer demand across the developing world that will be difficult to meet without innovation. Consider the challenges in energy, healthcare and financial services, for example. Energy and power requirements are so enormous that meeting them with fossil fuel-based technologies would result in serious environmental degradation, as China’s experience is proving.

In healthcare, large sections of the poor are being priced out of the market for life-saving drugs, and the industry requires a more cost-effective drug development model, as well as new government welfare mechanisms to deliver medicines to the bottom of the pyramid without violating the intellectual property rights of drug innovators.

In finance, tens of millions of people remain without bank accounts and are cut off from the formal financial system. Rapidly evolving crypto-currency technologies such as the Bitcoin (combined with internet-enabled smartphones) can help widen financial access.

The scale of need across these and other industries is such that the globalization approach alone is not sufficient: new technology is urgently required. Entrepreneurs have to deliver innovations in multiple sectors, not just ICT-related industries, to be able to make a large-scale impact.

Finally, it is more difficult for entrepreneurs and investors in advanced economies to deliver such innovations because they are not close to the customer. Increasingly, entrepreneurs in emerging markets will need to take the initiative and attempt to do what nobody has done, because the problems in these markets will be problems that nobody has really solved before. Additionally, these will be problems that advanced economies don’t really have a stake in solving.

In other words, emerging-market entrepreneurs will need to think of how to go “from zero to one” in myriad industries if they are to deliver sustainable and equitable growth for their large domestic populations. It poses a serious risk for global economic growth, but also presents the entrepreneurial opportunity of the century. Innovators who square the circle will not only create substantial wealth; they will also have done a tremendous service to human society by helping millions transition out of poverty.

Originally Published: World Economic Forum

Horizontal Progress vs Vertical Progress

In his new book Zero To One, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel writes:

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization – taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. China is the paradigmatic example of globalization; its 20-year plan is to become like the United States is today.

The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology . The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.

Elaborating on the theme of Globalization as “horizontal progress” versus Technology as “vertical progress”, Thiel writes:

This age of globalization has made it easy to imagine that the decades ahead will bring more convergence and more sameness. Even our everyday language suggests we believe in a kind of technological end of history: the division of the world into the so-called developed and developing nations implies that the “developed” world has already achieved the achievable, and that poorer nations just need to catch up.

But I don’t think that’s true…most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do— using only today’s tools— the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

As I’ve written earlier, this is a fundamental dichotomy: while advanced economies have the knowledge base and networks to deliver such innovation, the market for such innovation lies in emerging markets.

Achieving higher resource efficiency and developing lower-pollution energy sources presents a considerable innovation challenge – and commensurately, an entrepreneurship opportunity. So far, major startup successes that have emerged from India and China have been adept at “globalization” – they’ve taken proven business models from abroad, and executed those models well in their own markets.

The “technology” successes, especially in non-software or Internet areas, have been few and far between – and there are some very good reasons for why this is so. The question is whether emerging markets can become economically developed by globalization alone. As Thiel writes, this won’t be possible – “globalization without new technology is unsustainable”.

Something’s got to give – either we have technological breakthroughs that enable sustained economic growth, or growth itself will become constrained. China is already facing enormous pollution and environmental issues – sample these news reports:

Air Pollution, Birth Defects and the Risk in China (and Beyond)

The pollution constraint on China’s future growth

Environmentalism with Chinese characteristics

China Needs Industry to Enlist in “War on Pollution”

India is a fair distance away from China – and it’s already “choking on air pollution”. So the question is, where will the innovation come from, and which startups will deliver “vertical progress” to help sustain growth in emerging markets?

Liberate Higher Education To Compete In The Knowledge Economy

In which industry does the US enjoy a globally dominant, almost unassailable position? No, it is not technology, pharmaceuticals, defence or aerospace. The one sector in which US dominance is near-absolute is higher education.

Every year, some 80% of the top 20 best ranked universities globally are US universities. No country comes even close when it comes to attracting the best students, retaining the best researchers and producing output that pushes the boundaries of knowledge in practically every field of human inquiry. America’s commanding strength in higher education powers its whole economy and endows the country with a formidable strategic edge over rivals and competitors.

Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad’s Shailendra Raj Mehta published a comprehensive 47-page paper in 2012, studying what made US institutions so markedly better than others in the world.

Mehta cites Harvard’s Henry Rosovsky, who writes that “national wealth, large population, government support especially of science have to be significant explanatory factors” along with the migration of talent from Europe to the US because of World War II, and the “American habit of private philanthropy”.

Rosovsky also points to certain specific features in the governance structure, such as the fact that all senior and middle management for an institution “are appointed, not elected, and they can be dismissed”, and the “unitary governance” approach, with the university president being answerable only to the board of trustees and holding full executive responsibility.

Freedom and autonomy matter deeply to knowledge creation — academic research and scientific inquiry cannot co-exist with dogmatism, top-down control and doctrinaire thinking. Finally, inter-institution competition for talent and resources spurs universities to do better. Mehta cites the following standards, achieving which universities can be said to be autonomous and competitive:

1. do not need to seek government approval of their budget,

2. select their baccalaureate students in a manner independent of the government,

3. pay faculty flexibly rather than based on a centralized seniority / rank-based scale,

4. control their hiring internally,

5. have low endogamy,

6. own their own buildings,

7. set their own curriculum,

8. have a relatively low percentage of their budget form core government funds, and

9. have a relatively high percentage of their budget from competitive research grants.

It is easy to see how India’s higher education system would rate abysmally on almost every single count. Mehta says that though many countries have tried copying the US system, they haven’t succeeded. He also writes that all the success-inducing factors identified by Rosovsky weren’t available in the mid-19th century, when many of today’s great US universities were founded.

Mehta then identifies the “key innovation” that the US brought to higher education, which propelled its universities to the top ranks globally as “alumni control of the board of trustees” — not surprisingly pioneered by Harvard University, whose board was de facto controlled by alumni starting in 1710, with de jure control cemented in 1865. Harvard had been founded by the state of Massachusetts, and the Massachusetts legislature retained the right to appoint the board of trustees till 1865 (though it usually appointed only Harvard alumni) — thus, as Mehta writes, Harvard remained a public university or a “State School” for over 200 years after its founding.

Securing de jure alumni control over the board of trustees was anything but easy — in a nail-biting win, as Mehta records, the “Act in Relation to the Board of Overseers of Harvard College” was passed on April 29 1865 by a margin of just one vote in the Massachusetts State Senate, and two in the House. The legislation expressly barred government officials from becoming trustees of the institution and insulated the trustees from faculty influence by preventing faculty from voting in trustee elections. Harvard was already America’s preeminent university in 1865, and accelerated its rise after this critical — and hard-fought — change in its governance structure. Seeing its effectiveness, other US universities promptly emulated the Harvard model, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Why is this story relevant for India today? A new government has taken charge in New Delhi, on the back of an unprecedented mandate. There is a surge in technology entrepreneurship across India — there are huge expectations India’s youth have for their country to emerge as a leader in education, research and innovation. The policies the Narendra Modi government implements will have far-reaching consequences for India’s global competitiveness in these areas.

India’s capacity for scientific research is linked inextricably to the quality of our higher education institutions. If America dominates the world in higher education, India would today win top honours for being a powerhouse exporter of outstanding human capital. Venture research firm PitchBook ranked universities based on the number of alumni who started US companies that were able to raise a first round of venture capital funding between 2010 to the end of the third quarter of 2013 — the Indian Institutes of Technology ranked number 10, the only non-US institution in the top 10, alongside Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and three Ivy League institutions. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, an annual festival-conference organized by the Government of India, celebrates the export of such human capital.

Much of our human capital ends up in US institutions, sometimes never to return. A study by Brookings Institution shows that 71.5% of Indians studying in US universities in 2010 were enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes. Indians constitute 65% of all international students pursuing masters degrees in STEM programmes.

But this is largely a self-inflicted problem. We have US-level economic aspirations with a North Korea-style higher education system. There is just one Indian university ranked in the top 500 in the world. Without world-class universities that are free to grow and compete with one another, tomorrow’s innovators and entrepreneurs who would strengthen India’s knowledge economy are often left with no choice but to move abroad.

The alumni of our institutions who have proven themselves running governments and global corporations are surely capable enough of helping govern their alma maters too. Urgent, decisive measures are needed to change the way universities and research institutions are regulated – thick, heavy cobwebs that are strangulating our institutions need to be cleared, such that both quantity and quality can be expanded to fulfill a wellspring of aspirations.

It would be a travesty if the new government repeats the errors of previous governments. Universities and institutions should not be treated as tools of political patronage. Knowledge creation cannot be substituted with indoctrination. It is puerile and self-defeating to replace one kind of dogma with another kind of dogma.

The choice is our’s to make – do we want to be known for exporting brilliant minds, or do we want to create opportunities for these minds here in India, so that they can drive growth, create jobs and help India compete in the global knowledge economy?

(Co-authored with Dr Shiladitya Sengupta.)

Originally Published: Mint

Vyome Raises $8M Series B Funding

“The whole process where people get an idea and put together a team, raise the capital, create a product and mainstream it — that can only be done in the U.S. It can’t be done sitting in India. The Indian part of the equation [is to help] these innovative [U.S.] companies bring their products to the market quicker, cheaper and better, which increases the innovative cycle there. It is a complimentarity we need to enhance.”

– Nandan Nilekani, Infosys Co-Founder and CEO, March 7 2004

Vyome Biosciences was founded in 2010 with $1 million in seed funding put up by Navam Capital. Over the last 4 years, Vyome has gone from strength to strength, assembling from scratch a world-class team that is commercializing science and delivering innovation for the global dermatology market. Today, Vyome took another step in its journey, announcing it had raised $8 million in funding.

Vyome’s growth proves that Indian startups don’t have to stick to just outsourcing or go after “me-too” ideas and products that are (usually poor) copy-cats of products or business models that worked elsewhere.

There’s more to be done. Indian entrepreneurs should set their sights higher. With the right team and in the right sectors, there are many great, pioneering companies waiting to be built.


Energy Innovation For Emerging Markets

Energy and clean technology investing has proven to be disastrous for venture capitalists. Capital allocated to clean tech fell to less than half in 2013 from the $3.7 billion invested in 2012, and new clean tech-focused funds were able to raise less than $1 billion last year, compared to $4.5 billion raised in 2012.

High-profile flameouts like Solyndra, A123 Systems, Konarka, Miasole, Better Place and Fisker Automotive have, appropriately enough, made investors very wary. Billions of dollars of equity has evaporated. Successes, such as Tesla Motors and Nest Labs, have been extremely rare.

Clean tech and energy, once touted as a fecund sectors for entrepreneurship alongside software, life sciences and the Internet, are no longer mentioned in the same league. Risk capital has dwindled dramatically, with prominent venture investors either winding down energy investing teams or retrenching significantly, content only with managing existing investments and not making new ones.

But why has clean technology blown a hole in investor’s pockets?

From questions about the suitability of cleantech for the venture capital investing model, to heated debates about the validity of climate change itself, which became a moral basis for the promotion of clean technology, many a rationale has been offered for why clean tech didn’t succeed in delivering investment returns. There is still no clear answer to why companies led by top-notch entrepreneurial operators and commercializing promising technologies met with spectacular failure.

It could be something more prosaic: clean technology companies and energy innovators have been in the wrong geographical market. Investors have unwittingly violated one of the maxims enunciated by venture capital pioneer Eugene Kleiner, who said; “Make sure the dog wants to eat the dog food.”

Take any metric – energy demand, fuel consumption, pollution, power generation growth, electrical grid development or water demand. Over the last decade, North American and European countries don’t figure on the list of the fastest growing markets for any of these.

Yet, clean technology companies have focused almost exclusively only on these developed world markets. The economies that have witnessed the highest growth in energy- and resource-related consumption are in emerging Asia, South America and Africa. Countries and cities in these regions also top global rankings for being the most polluted.

Does it make any sense to build windmills in Scandinavia or solar plants in Germany and California, when those regions already have relatively low levels of pollution and are fully electrified? As Europe is discovering, moralistic grandstanding cannot become the basis for innovation. This discrepancy represents a fundamental misallocation on a global scale of both human capital and financial risk capital.

The difficulty of commercializing innovation is compounded thanks to the cultural challenge innovators in developed economies face when working in emerging economies, which also inevitably have very different business climates.

Frequently, the geographical markets that are amenable to innovation in clean technology have regulatory risks and present far more challenging conditions for building businesses, as evidenced by their low rankings in the World Bank’s ease of doing business study.

This is an advantage “virtual world” businesses that are in consumer-focused Internet and mobile sectors have over others in that they have to contend with a lot less friction in developing markets.

Consider China’s situation. Tens of thousands of environmental protests are reported annually, millions of consumers live in extreme pollution and smog is destroying visibility – so it is easier to make the case for higher rates for electricity.

India’s growth has so far been predominantly services-driven. Manufacturing output has collapsed and saw negative growth because of unprecedented economic mismanagement by the current national government. This isn’t socially sustainable – as India promotes manufacturing and heavy industry to employ tens of millions of its youth, it’s inevitable that problems with pollution and environmental degradation will be exacerbated.

These are markets where one needn’t be moralistic about why clean technology is required. As the prospect of unlivable communities and unbreathable air looms large even in the most important urban centers, the economic logic for clean technology is self-evident.

Innovators outside these economies should take them a lot more seriously and find ways to overcome the cultural and business pitfalls of operating in emerging markets. There is also an unprecedented opportunity for inventors and entrepreneurs in emerging markets to build companies in clean technology.

A reallocation of financial risk capital and human capital towards where the clean technology and energy innovation markets are would go a long way towards solving the world’s sustainability challenge – and in the process, would also deliver far better returns for investors.

Originally Published:

Challenging Silicon Valley’s Innovation Hegemony

For several decades, Silicon Valley has had a near-monopoly on innovation. The Valley emerged out of America’s deep commitment to higher education and scientific research, combined with the American will to maintain leadership in defence technology. Through the second half of the 20th century, China was disastrously experimenting with Maoism, India was embracing Socialism, a fragmented Europe was rebuilding after the Second World War and the other superpower, Soviet Russia, was persisting with its Communist economic model. The Americans invested public and private capital in fundamental research and development, allowing private enterprise to drive economic growth and entrepreneurial small businesses to commercialize publicly-funded scientific research. America invented the venture capital model to commercialize such research.

It stood out as an oasis in a world where central planning and a state control of the economy was the norm. Owing to a liberal immigration policy, it became a magnet for talent from around the world. Scores of scientists migrated from Europe to America in the throes of the Second World War, including titans like Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein. Nobel laureates Hargobind Khorana and Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, both of whom completed their college education in India, also made America their home.

The migration of talent from other parts of the world to America continued through the 1960s and 1970s, with the best talent from China and India making the move, thanks to the economic havoc caused by the destructive ideas of Chairman Mao and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

In this way, America managed to consolidate the world’s best scientific talent. It then gave them a platform and funding to invent and create. The scientists and engineers who went to America might not all have founded technology companies, but through their work at private research labs, government research institutions, universities and startups, laid the foundations for America’s technological prowess that underpins its military and economic might to this day.

It is important to recognize that this was a historical aberration and cannot be sustained by design — America positioned itself to benefit from the poor choices that the rest of the world made. A reversion to the mean is underway, and the tide has started turning over the last two decades. Besides increased economic and financial integration worldwide permitting capital flows on a global scale, economic reforms catalyzing sustained growth in Asia and the creation of a common market in Europe have fostered economic blocks that can compete with America.

Sector after sector has become more globalized. Venture capital investing, long the exclusive preserve of a clutch of firms on Silicon Valley’s famed Sand Hill Road and till recently heavily concentrated in the United States, is now unmistakably global. Risk capital flows to places that have talented people pursuing breakthrough business ideas — and sustained global growth over the last two decades has set the stage for a need for technological innovation across economies and geographies. The rise of the Asian consumer is creating opportunities for innovation in all kinds of consumer products. Transplanting ideas from elsewhere doesn’t always cut it with the taste and sensibility of consumers in Asian countries. With increasing consumption, there is a glaring need for efficiency in resource utilization and energy use.

Challenging economic conditions combined with more stringent immigration policies in developed nations have made it appealing for accomplished scientists and engineers from developing nations to return home, where in many cases there is stronger economic growth alongside a new focus on nurturing and financing science and technology. This has set the stage for venture capital investing in emerging markets.

America has a long lead, but the rest of the world is catching up. It will continue to maintain primacy in Internet innovation in particular because of the spending capacity of the American consumer. The Internet is a platform for consumption, be it consuming information which allows for digital advertising to flourish or purchasing products through Internet-based retailers. America’s consumption power allows it be the breeding ground for global Internet giants such as Google, Amazon and Facebook, and it will dominate in web innovation as long as the American consumer has clout.

New York-based venture capitalist Fred Wilson recently wrote about how the Valley’s dominance could be upended if there was a new wave of technological disruption, far separated from the computing and Internet industry on which the Valley has been built. Wilson said that should Silicon Valley miss such a new wave, it could look like Detroit in a few decades.

Just as a consumer-centric economy allows it to dominate Internet innovation, it also creates an insulation from innovation in non-consumer industries. The world has become a dramatically different place in the last few decades, and such innovations that define the next wave of technological disruption can come from any nation that has a sufficiently large pool of talented people working to solve the big challenges in energy, health care, clean technology and other sectors. That would weaken Silicon Valley’s grip on driving innovation — and further undermine America’s standing as a global power.

Originally Published:

India’s Rapidly Evolving Technology Landscape

Most investors who have put capital behind consumer internet startups trying to build commoditised businesses will lose money.

India’s technology landscape can be characterized as having seen three waves of evolution and growth. The first wave was led by the likes of Tata Consultancy Services, Patni Computer Systems, Infosys and Wipro, who pioneered the outsourcing model based on labour cost arbitrage. These were firms founded in pre-liberalization India and took decades to establish themselves as global brands. The second wave occurred in post-liberalization India of the 1990s, when several IT firms adopted similar business models to the outsourcing pioneers. The small- and mid-sized enterprises that emerged during this period strengthened the foundation of India’s nascent software services industry and today form the backbone of that thriving sector. The third wave can be said to have begun with the advent of the Internet – startups such as,, InMobi and who have emerged as category leaders in providing web services.

The common thread to the three waves has been the domination of the services-oriented software and Internet companies, and in recent years, the preponderance of ideas that have worked in the West that were repackaged to suit the Indian context. The fact is India has seen more imitation than genuine product innovation.

India’s technology industry has been dominated by IT and Internet firms, and venture capital investment figures for recent years bear out this trend. Since 2009, VCs have poured over $810 million into 113 deals in the software, mobile and Internet sectors. In contrast, early-stage health care and clean technology companies have received $292 million across 71 deals. It’s also interesting that average deal sizes are larger for early-stage companies in software and Internet than for health care and clean technology – one would have thought that the former is less capital intensive than the latter, and would hence require lesser capital to grow at the early-stage. By some estimates, India’s software and Internet ventures have been raising larger amounts of early-stage venture funding than American clean technology startups.

The data points to a clear mismatch both in terms of funding size and sectoral capital allocation. My hunch is that most investors who have put capital behind consumer Internet startups trying to build commoditized businesses will lose money. Most of these ventures are pursuing unsustainable business models. As if having imitators of American Internet startups wasn’t enough, we’ve seen imitators of Indian imitators of US Internet startups successfully raise funding. These ventures have almost no pricing power and hence almost no profitability. A fund raising arms race is under way, and the vast majority of startups will lose out as capital providers cluster around the top 1 or 2 category leaders.

In a more rational world, India’s VCs would bring together some of the outstanding engineers and scientists working at corporate research laboratories operated by Fortune 500 giants like General Electric, who are conducting key R&D work that is in many cases indispensable to the parent company. VCs should be willing to back stellar teams pursuing big ideas, and should invest capital in ways that harnesses the economics of outsourcing to deliver path-breaking innovation.

The data also tells us that more India-focused venture funds will be forced to look in places other than the tried and familiar Internet and IT sectors. Health care, clean technology and energy are mammoth markets that are relatively underserved and in dire need of early-stage capital, particularly for areas with substantial technology risk. Investors are beginning to recognize this, and several new funds have emerged that are both willing to look beyond IT and are comfortable backing early-stage ventures with $1-2 million.

The emergence of product-driven companies in sectors such as life sciences and clean technology in this decade will mark the fourth wave of the evolution and growth of India’s technology landscape. India’s talent base extends far beyond computer science and IT into fundamental sciences and engineering – it’s only a matter of time before risk capital connects with this talent base to deliver world-leading product innovation across more sectors. In order to achieve outsized returns, investors should skate to where the puck is going, rather than where it has been, to quote ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky.

Originally Published:

India Learns To Innovate

India is regarded as the world’s outsourcing center and a production powerhouse for generic drugs. Information technology and pharmaceutical companies have lent the India story a rich layer thanks to their reputations for efficiency. Aside from creating hundreds of thousands of jobs at home, these industries have helped train a domestic labor force that suffers at the hands of a broken higher-education system. Above all, Indians who have worked at these companies have been filled with a confidence to strike out on their own, and the seeds of cutting-edge innovation are now taking root in the Indian economy.

For a long time, India’s economy was starved for capital. Its best scientific talent went abroad because there were no opportunities at home. Monopolistic companies found their products to be in permanent demand because of artificial shortages created by government policy, so they never felt the need to invest in innovation. But business realities have changed dramatically over the last decade as India transforms into an urbanized, industrial economy. An increasingly discerning consumer base and competition in the marketplace are forcing companies to innovate for the home market. One example is Tata Motors, the builder of the $2,500 Nano car, which changed automobile design fundamentally and invented new ways for automobile manufacturing. Nano factories use “smart” technologies and automation to manage supply chains in real-time and minimize the consumption of energy and resources during production.

Economic turmoil in developed nations and stringent immigration policies have made the prospect of returning home more attractive for expatriate Indians. Vivek Wadhwa, who researches innovation, showed that more than 60 percent of the returnees to India cited better economic opportunities as a key reason for making the shift. These individuals bring with them not just experience and skills, but a culture and professional network that is catalyzing innovation in India. Indeed, moving up the value chain this way is imperative for the economy to maintain its growth momentum and create jobs.

Seeing the quality of people flocking to India, global investors have eagerly set up shop. India has never seen the availability of so much financial risk capital — yet it isn’t enough, and it is spread rather unevenly. Many investors believe that India is still limited when it comes to product innovation and are hesitant to back innovation-driven ventures. Instead, they choose to play it safe by focusing on outsourcing-oriented businesses, a formula that has been known to work well.

As an entrepreneur and venture capitalist in India, I see that my nation is at a tipping point. India has always failed to achieve its potential when it comes to commercializing technology, but with the return of talent from abroad and the emergence of a large domestic market, it now has momentum.

I have found that companies that create knowledge and commercialize scientific research can attract engineers and scientists from across the globe. Two companies that I’ve invested in include founders who used to be expatriates.

India can be a chaotic and difficult place to do business, consistently getting a low ranking in the World Bank’s reports on the ease of doing business. Opening bank accounts or working with the government’s tax and regulatory agencies entail mounds of paperwork and can drag on for weeks. Still, it makes sense to invest in innovation because of India’s superior capital efficiency, which mitigates financial risks. Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, an economist, has shown in his book “The Rise of India” that India requires four units of capital to generate one unit of output, while China consumes five units of capital to produce one unit of output.

There are lessons here for policymakers as well — competition for talent and capital is now global. Nations that champion openness and freedom will be able to compete and prosper, while those that remain insular will fall behind. A lot remains to be done to cultivate such an environment in India. Outdated labor laws constrain the development of manufacturing, and the higher-education system needs large investments for expansion along with a boost in autonomy.

India has rapidly moved on from its rigidly socialist past, setting the stage for more openness and freedom. An older colleague in his sixties remarked to me that my generation of Indians was fortunate to be able to build companies from the ground up. In earlier times, India’s economy remained so tightly controlled by the government that this would have simply been impossible. The government can encourage entrepreneurship by making it easier to run businesses, enhancing access to finance and building transportation infrastructure and new cities.

India doesn’t have to be just the world’s back office. It can also be the innovation engine.

Originally Published: The New York Times International Weekly

Riding The Indian Education Boom

India’s education sector is seeing hectic entrepreneurial activity and private equity investors are deploying significant capital in this sunrise sector. Funds focusing exclusively on education have emerged. Recently, education company Kaplan announced the formation of Kaplan Ventures, which will invest in the education sector in India and other countries.

There are a few structural drivers to the boom in India’s education sector.

First and unusually, the Indian government has made a commitment to restructuring the policy framework, including the setting up of foreign universities in India. Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal has taken a few steps forward, and some backward, but for now even the mere promise of reform and more openness in the sector is sufficient to generate hope and excitement that spurs investment and business plans.

But some caution would be apt. There is a strong case for regulating the sector and putting in place standards and guidelines for what it takes for an educational institution to be recognized as a university or school. Without sound regulatory norms in the early stages, the education boom may fizzle out to the detriment of investors, entrepreneurs and India’s economy. Regulation, however, should be left to individual school examination boards and professional accreditation bodies as far as possible, distributing rather than concentrating authority.

For instance, there has been a profusion of institutions offering the International Baccalaureate program for high school students. The IB is governed by the IB Organization based in Switzerland, which sets its own standards for what it takes to be an IB school. The government should empower Indian boards to set standards in the same way, for this would allow for competition between boards. Schools, private and government-aided, should be free to choose the board they want to offer, to design the admissions mechanism and to charge the fees they wish.

Second, India is entering a phase of demographic change that has far-reaching consequences for society and the economy. According to research from Deutsche Bank, India will be adding almost a million people to its labor force every single month for the next 20 years till 2030. That’s a staggering number of people, equivalent to the current populations of U.K., Germany, Spain and France combined. The only comparable demographic shift from recent history is the post-World War II baby boom in the United States. Skill development, training and education will be among the first areas where all those consumers will want to put their money.

These trends will only accelerate, making the education sector very attractive for both entrepreneurs and investors. Moreover, without private capital and the participation of entrepreneurs, India simply cannot train and educate a workforce of this size.

While projects such as building full-fledged schools and universities would be beyond the reach of most first-time entrepreneurs and are typically not “fundable” from a venture capital perspective, ancillaries like infrastructure, technology and services are attracting investments.

In 2009, TutorVista, Career Point and FIITJEE were some of the companies offering training for competitive university admission examinations that saw substantial investor interest. The most successful companies in the sector so far have been those that are providing information technology and software solutions to brick-and-mortar institutions. Companies like Educomp Solutions and EdServe Softsystems have combined the high margins of the software business with the scale and opportunity in the education space.

Education is a very large canvas. The challenge is to identify the areas within it that will be the most profitable. As the sector evolves and grows, opportunities which cannot be anticipated today will soon emerge.

Originally Published: WSJ

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